The following 1996 essay was written by Harvey L. Jones for the illustrated catalogue Impressions of California: Early Currents in Art 1850-1950, ISBN 0-9635-468-7-2 (cloth). The essay is located in pages 35-80 in the catalogue. The essay is re-keyed and reprinted with permission of The Irvine Museum and without illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact The Irvine Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Landscape Painters of Northern California 1870-1930

by Harvey L. Jones

 

The earliest painted depictions of the California landscape date from the era of exploration, from various late-eighteenth century voyages of discovery that sailed under several European flags. Before the expeditionary artists visited California, the native peoples had left evidence of their own pictorial tradition in the form of painted designs on cave walls or rock formations that constitute mysterious representations of animals or figures with ceremonial significance. Under Hispanic rule the painting tradition was largely limited to the mural decorations and geometric designs, of Spanish or Mexican origin, that adorned the chain of California missions along the Pacific coast.

Following the discovery of gold in 1848, the first artists trained in the European tradition of easel painting came to California. Among the shiploads of argonauts arriving almost daily in San Francisco during the Gold Rush were many professional artists who hoped to strike it rich in the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

An art community soon developed in San Francisco when unsuccessful artist-prospectors returned to painting as a means of monetary gain. Depictions of mining themes and related subjects wherein the California landscape was often relegated to the background were popular with the Gold Rush painters. It was a demand for portrait likenesses that proved the most lucrative as the cultural aspirations of the city's wealthiest and most prominent citizens created an important patronage for the artists. The Big Four railroad barons, the bankers and the so-called Silver Kings built extravagant Victorian mansions on Nob Hill, as well as splendid "country houses" along the peninsula south of the city, and these required luxurious furnishings and collections of fine art as reflections of their builders' cultivated taste and high social position. The demand for formal portraiture and the growing popularity of California landscapes would bolster the good fortune of San Francisco's prosperous art community until the 1880s, when there was an economic decline and the artistic taste of the local patrons, informed by their travels abroad during the fashionably requisite Grand Tour, shifted toward collecting more European art.

During the decade that followed completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, California's scenic wonders, particularly the rugged Sierra Nevada, with its giant redwoods and its rivers and lakes, and especially Yosemite became more accessible to visiting artists from Europe or eastern America. Among the prominent landscape painters who visited the state or established studios in San Francisco during the 1870s were Thomas Moran (1837-1926), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) and James Hamilton (1819-1878). Earlier arrivals Thomas Hill (1829-1908), William Keith (1838-1911) and Virgil Williams (1830-1886) were to become permanent residents with lasting reputations. Most of these artists traveled extensively in the Sierra on foot or on horseback during their extended sketching trips to gather images that were later used in developing "finished" landscapes painted in their San Francisco studios. They all drew upon European influences for their formulation of paintings that became classic landscapes of the American West. The great panoramas of California's mountain scenery were often idealized, and sometimes dramatized, in the manner of the German academic style taught in Dusseldorf and reinforced by the conventions of the American Hudson River school. The Hudson River painters had remained faithful to the physical reality of the landscape in pictures that also expressed a spirit of expanding national pride and a sense of the sublime in allegories of God in nature, paintings that transcended mere visual representation.

The compositional features of a classic American landscape of western scenery usually included an expansive, luminous sky framed by detailed depictions of mountain topography and vegetation. In romantic, yet realistic paintings of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Mount Shasta and other breath-taking California mountain landscapes, the artists established classic images of western scenery in postcard-perfect views, which were shown to nationwide acclaim and which in turn helped to persuade Americans to preserve some of California's finest wilderness areas as state or national parks.

In typical nineteenth-century western landscapes, a depiction of humanity, sometimes a group of American Indians or a rider on horseback, would occasionally be shown in the foreground or middle distance in relatively tiny proportion to the overwhelming scale of the wilderness elements. These allusions to the dominance of nature over humanity represented a concept that would reversed in much of the landscape imagery of twentieth-century California painters.

Albert Bierstadt, whose several visits to California began in 1863 with sketching in Yosemite, set up a San Francisco studio in 1872. His worldwide reputation conferred celebrity status that was as notable as his grandiose landscape paintings. This exerted a positive influence upon the local artists and greatly stimulated art patronage among wealthy San Franciscans. Bierstadt's occasional use of artistic license, in the slight exaggeration of certain pictorial elements combined with his artful manipulation of nature's lighting effects, created maximum dramatic impact in awe-inspiring majestic landscapes, prompting us to forgive his departure from strict realism. These spectacular views of the western landscape on a grand scale became road show attractions in the true theatrical sense.

Albert Bierstadt's contemporaries in San Francisco, Thomas Hill and William Keith, shared his enthusiasm for painting the grandeur of panoramic mountain scenery. Their works too were much sought after, both in California and in the East. A stylistic shift of European academic influences from Dusseldorf toward Munich, and more importantly to the French Barbizon school so admired by many California landscape painters, led artists such as Hill and Keith to modify their painting styles as early as the mid-1870s. They adopted a looser, more spontaneous form of brushwork in the Munich style and were also attracted to the broader naturalistic vision of landscapes in French manner. Although both Keith and Hill produced many large paintings of mountain subjects on the epic scale of Bierstadt's impressive road show attractions, they were also drawn to the simpler, more intimate motifs in nature that became a popular feature in paintings by the next generation of artists, a change in taste that eventually led to the erosion of Bierstadt's reputation.

William Keith modified his painting style three times over the several decades of a long career. The carefully detailed realism of his early work from the mid-1860s, reminiscent of Hudson River-school paintings, may have been an extension of his involvement with descriptive detail as an engraver/illustrator. In the 1870s he indulged his enthusiasm for describing the picturesque mountain wilderness with its high mountain peaks, wild rivers and placid lakes in a Romantic-Realist style that combined the spectacle of a Bierstadt with the paint surfaces of the Munich school. In the 1890s, inspired by the Barbizon painters, Keith abandoned the realist approach in favor of an even freer application of paint in his evocation of modestly scaled "intimate" landscapes-where nature's episodes were measured by mere moments instead of hours, and by a few acres rather than miles.

In the early 1870s San Francisco's growing enthusiasm for art centered on the newly founded San Francisco Art Association. Membership grew rapidly, from the already established community of resident artists and the recent influx of prominent painters from the East; this provided sufficient funds to realize the organization's intent to create its own art school to provide sound technical training by accomplished artists.

Virgil Williams, born in Maine, had studied in Rome with renowned painter William Page. He was hired in 1874 as the first director of the San Francisco Art Association's School of Design. He was highly regarded as a teacher and beloved by his students, some of whom number among the nation's most respected painters. Most of Williams's own paintings were figurative subjects that reflected on his experiences in Italy, but he also produced a few fine California landscapes.

Under Williams's leadership the California School of Design provided its students with basic academic art training by a faculty that included some of the best painters in the West. Originally located on the second floor of a storefront building on Pine Street, in 1893 it moved to the Nob Hill mansion donated by the widow of Mark Hopkins (after which it became known as the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art). A number of the state's first generation of native-born artists, including John A. Stanton (1857-1929), Lorenzo P. Latimer (1857-1941) and Theodore Wores (1859-1939), were among the early graduates of the School of Design.

The school's curriculum was modeled on that of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where emphasis was placed on mastery of basic drawing skills, and included sketching from plaster casts of Greek antique and Italian Renaissance sculptures from the Louvre. Enrollment of women often outnumbered that of men. Among those who achieved prominence were Clara McChesney (1860-1928), known for her floral subjects; Mary Curtis Richardson (1848-1931), an exceptional portraitist (especially of children); and Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937), who specialized in studies of Pomo Indian children.

The 1880s brought forth a number of academically well trained and widely traveled landscape painters who settled permanently in the San Francisco Bay Area. Thaddeus Welch (1844-1919) was noted for his pastoral scenes in rural Marin County; Raymond Dabb Yelland (1848-1900) had as his signature subject coastal sunsets; Charles Dormon Robinson (1847-1933) was a talented marine painter who also favored Yosemite landscapes; and Theodore Wores, one of the West's first artists to visit Japan, excelled equally with portrait, genre and landscape subjects from his travels abroad as well as in California. These artists, and many of their local contemporaries, adopted a loose expressive brushwork in intimately scaled views of California's varied landscapes that anticipated the appeal of Impressionism.

In 1890 Arthur Mathews (1860-1945) was appointed director of the School of Design, where he implemented reforms in the curriculum that included deemphasizing antique classes in favor of life drawing from nude or draped models in the segregated men's and women's classes. Mathews, who trained at the Academie Julian in Paris, encouraged his pupils to study further in Europe. As both a teacher and an accomplished painter, Mathews would become a major influence on the artistic life of Northern California in the early years of the twentieth century.

The proud roster of prominent California artists who studied at the School of Design/Mark Hopkins Institute includes Percy Gray (1869-1952), Armin C. Hansen (1886-1957), E. Charlton Fortune (1885-1969), Granville Redmond (1871-1935) and Albert DeRome (1885-1959), all of whom were active landscape painters in Northern California.

By the 1890s, when the first of the California-schooled artists began to receive recognition and gain confidence in their own work, the prevailing style of American painting was changing. George Inness (1825-1894) was America's most respected landscape painter at the time of his influential visit to California in 1891. California's own old master painter of landscapes, William Keith, was a great admirer of Inness, with whom he shared the philosophical ideal that the painter should strive to synthesize the poetry of nature with objective fact.

A new emphasis on art for art's sake reflected a greater sophistication among painters who had been exposed to newly imported European trends. The Barbizon group of artists in France had long been painting en plein air, that is, working out of doors and observing nature directly, to render scenes in spontaneous brushstrokes right on the canvas, without benefit of elaborate preliminary sketches. Their choice of modest domestic subjects on an intimate scale contrasted with the grand panoramas of an earlier style. Many American painters were turning away from the crisply defined, descriptive realism of an Albert Bierstadt toward more subjective interpretations realized through a style that has been termed "Tonalism." This was a then-vanguard approach to painting that helped in the eclipse of realism's popularity even as it rejected the tenets of French Impressionist-inspired plein-air painting. Nature remained the principal inspiration for Tonalism, particularly in landscape painting. The Tonalists explored quiet contemplative moods of nature experienced in the diminished light of early morning, late afternoon or evening. Often mysterious or romantic lighting effects were achieved through representations of atmospheric fog, mist or haze rendered in carefully controlled, low-key color harmonies that seem to envelop the subject, to soften or blur the imagery, leaving details to the poetic imagination of the observer.

Northern California possessed two important underpinnings for a regional impact of the style. First, the artistic influences of two major American painters, George Inness and James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), conveyed through the art and teachings of two of California's leading artists of the time: William Keith and Arthur Mathews, respectively. Second, the prevailing atmospheric conditions that produce the fog and haze characteristic of coastal California, most significantly around the art centers of San Francisco Bay and Carmel/Monterey.

The lessons of Whistler's carefully organized compositions, arranged in a subdued palette of grayed tones, were embraced by San Francisco's dominant artistic influence of the period, Arthur Mathews. His own form of decorative Tonalism, now referred to as the California Decorative Style, merged his academic figurative training with a Whistlerian-influenced color harmony.

As a prominent muralist, easel painter, designer, architect, teacher, art juror, writer and civic arts advocate, Mathews embodied the concept of a Renaissance man in the arts more than any other artist in California. It is arguable that Mathews' personal rejection of the tenets of French Impressionism influenced a generation of Northern California painters, resulting in the delayed impact that the once vanguard style had on the painters of California. Most of his successful students, who included his wife Lucia Kleinhans Mathews (1870-1955), Gottardo Piazzoni (1872-1945), Xavier Martinez (1869-1943), Guiseppe Cadenasso (1858-1918), Francis McComas (1875-1938) and Granville Redmond, were instead influenced by Arthur Mathews's Tonalism.

The subjectivity of Tonalism, with its emphasis on subtlety and mood in landscapes depicted with controlled lighting effects, the dominant style in Northern California at the turn of the century, contrasted with the more objective aims of the Impressionist-inspired plein-air style that created close-up depictions of nature in bright sunlight, and which was preferred by painters in Southern California from the early teens to the 1930s.

In the great earthquake and fire of 1906 San Francisco's visual arts heritage from the nineteenth century suffered a devastating, irreparable loss. Important private collections of precious California paintings perished in the flames that also took nearly the life's work of several artists whose homes and studios were burned. For several years during the rebuilding of the city the center of artistic life shifted to the Monterey Peninsula, where many painters opened studios in Carmel by the Sea, Pacific Grove or Monterey. Other San Francisco artists moved to the East Bay cities of Oakland, Alameda or Berkeley, where some remained permanently.

The Monterey area, with its historic missions and adobe ruins, offered breathtaking beauty in natural surroundings that included a deep blue crescent bay, sandy beaches and windswept rocky promontories on which grew gnarled cypress trees, tall graceful Monterey pines and ice plants with intensely magenta blossoms. The Carmel Valley provided sunny vistas of rolling hills robed in the greens or golds of the seasons.

Several artists had maintained summer studios on the Monterey Peninsula since the 1890s, but after 1906 they occupied them on a permanent basis. Charles Rollo Peters (1862-1928), best known for his "nocturnes" in the Whistlerian manner of Tonalism, first settled in Monterey in 1895. In 1900 he built a thirty-acre estate there, complete with studio, art gallery and guest rooms, establishing him as a leading figure among a growing community of artists, writers and poets that maintained much of its artistic vigor until World War II.

The center of activity became the Hotel Del Monte Art Gallery in Monterey, which opened in 1907 with the cooperation of San Francisco's leading artists. The gallery provided a much-needed place for artists to exhibit and sell their work. A virtual who's who of California painters from the first half of the twentieth century are among those who regularly worked and exhibited in Monterey.

Armin Hansen, a San Franciscan who began his art studies at the Mark Hopkins Institute under Arthur Mathews, became a permanent resident of Monterey in 1913 after several years of work and study in Europe. His coastal landscapes and marine paintings depicting Monterey's fishing industry rendered in bravura brushstrokes brought Hansen national recognition and made him one of Monterey's leading artists.

As the art colony's reputation grew, a number of well-known Eastern painters took studios on the Monterey Peninsula. In 1911 New York painter and National Academician William Ritschel (1864-1949) became a permanent resident of the Carmel Highlands, where he remained a prominent painter of marine subjects. Childe Hassam (1859-1935) and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) left canvases that mark their visits. By the early teens Northern California painters had been exposed to Impressionism in France or through the numerous examples of what by then was an international style of Impressionism exhibited, for example, in the Palace of Fine Arts at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Painting by French artists such as Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Pierre Renoir (1841-1919), as well as the Americans Chase, Hassam and Frederick Frieseke (1874-1939), began to influence the painters of California. E. Charlton Fortune, Bruce Nelson (1888-1952), Percy Gray and Anne Bremer (1868-1923) are among painters active in Northern California who adopted the lighter palette and fluid brushstrokes of Impressionism in their landscapes painted en plein air.

The Impressionist ideal of painting a landscape directly from nature in a single sitting was not often realized in actual practice. Although the relatively small-sized canvases and the speed of painting with quick, gestural brushstrokes helped, most painters found it necessary to return to a scene more than once in order to capture the often fleeting light at the preferred time of midday. Many a painting was completed in the artist's studio without sacrificing the requisite immediacy of execution.

The Impressionist-inspired landscapes of California featured typical, yet often unidentified locales characteristic of the coastal regions of the state. Favored scenes depicted California as a colorful sunlit garden of wildflowers or as a tranquil retreat with a quiet pool framed by the branches of eucalyptus, Monterey cypress or live oak trees. Much of the appeal of these scenes was that they seemed to allow the observer to imagine comfortably inhabiting a landscape of human scale quite unlike the overwhelming spectacle of wilderness represented in typical nineteenth century California landscapes.

During the 1920s a group of Oakland-based painters who called themselves the Society of Six, William Clapp (1879-1954), August Gay (1890-1949), Selden Gile (1877-1947), Maurice Logan (1886-1977), Louis Siegriest (1899-1989) and Bernard von Eichman (1899-1970), carried the tradition of plein-air painting forward to the beginnings of modernism in Northern California painting.

Their experiments with landscape painting were inspired by French Post-Impressionism, among other European modernist styles, such as Fauvism and even Cubism, examples of which these artists had seen in the exhibitions at the Palace of Fine Arts during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. "The Six" adopted their own manifesto that began, ''All great art is founded upon the use of visual abstractions to express beauty." They frequently painted together, exhibited together and socialized as a group, which stimulated each other's work as well as that of a generation of Bay Area painters who came to prominence a decade or two later.

The plein-air painters of Northern California remained active and popular until the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, when the art market collapsed along with everything else. The most progressive artists of the 1930s and 1940s abandoned the "pure landscape" as the principal subject for painting at a time that coincided with pronounced changes in California's land use -- brought about by expanding urbanization and the rapid growth of large-scale agriculture. Many Northern California artists showed greater interest in Social Realist painting, to better reflect the times, and there was also a younger generation of artists who chose to experiment with various vanguard approaches to abstract painting that drew little of its inspiration from the landscape.

 

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the The Irvine Museum in Resource Library Magazine.


Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2004 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.